English & EAL

How to get an A+ on your Like a House on Fire essay?

Mariam Awad

October 4, 2020

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Contents

1. Dissecting the prompt

2. Essay Topic and Body Paragraphs Breakdown

3. Resources

Like A House On Fire is currently studied in VCE English under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Dissecting the Prompt

Dissecting a collection of short stories can be very challenging due to the many characters involved, and the different themes. But what most students don’t realise is that almost all the stories in the anthology have common and overlapping themes. And that’s what you need to focus on when you’re building your essay. I’m going to go through one essay topic to demonstrate how you’re expected to dissect and plan the essay. This is how I planned my essays ate the beginning of the year when I was still struggling with writing an essay on short stories and wanted everything to be clear to me before I start writing so that I know exactly what I will be covering. 

Although many of the characters in like a house on fire are dealing with physical and emotional pain, it is their resilience that will be remembered by the reader. Do you agree?

So first of all, you need to highlight all the important aspects of this question.

Although many of the characters in like a house on fire are dealing with physical and emotional pain, it is their resilience that will be remembered by the reader. Do you agree?

Now that we have highlighted the important parts that the question is inviting us to discuss, we know that we need to mention characters who are dealing with physical and emotional trauma yet rise above their tribulations, leaving the readers hopeful and optimistic. In doing so, you’ve pretty much discussed everything the prompt wants you to, but you can always go one step further and have a rebuttal paragraph. What I mean by that is: find a character who is faced with physical or emotional trauma yet gives up and becomes trapped in his/her imperfect reality. That way you show the assessor your knowledge of the text because you show them that even though Kennedy focuses on the resilience of her characters, she also sheds light on the reality that some people don’t have the strength to recover from such traumas.

Detailed Plan

What I personally do after dissecting my prompt is have a plan of what I’m going to be covering in each paragraph. The aim for a high scoring essay is to cover 5-6 short stories, if you chose to cover only 3-4 then from my experience the maximum you can score is an 8/10.

I’m going to split my essay into three sections each covering a certain aspect of my prompt.

First paragraph

Which characters struggled with physical trauma yet rose above it? 

1. In ‘Flexion’, Kennedy explores the pain and anguish Frank feels as he fights his injury, determined not to let it destroy him through her use of linguistic imagery whereby the slimily of Frank ‘[clawing] himself up onto the machinery’ as he is ‘growling like an animal’ depicts the sheer resolve that he exhibits as he tries to overcome the physical pain and handicap that threaten his independence. Thus, his resilience becomes admired by the readers who realise that despite almost dying, he chooses to alter his imperfect circumstances.

2. In the eponymous story ‘Like a House on Fire’, the unnamed protagonist suffers from a herniated disc that hinders his ability to carry out his role as a husband and a father yet he chooses to alter his imperfect reality by working his ‘teeth gritted way up the stairs’ not once but twice, in hope of finding a solution to the stagnation taking place in his own marriage.

Second paragraph

Which characters struggled with emotional trauma yet rose above it? 

1. In ‘Waiting’, the protagonist is waiting in a cold clinic whereby she will be told that she has suffered yet another miscarriage. Despite the harrowing pain she feels and the feeling of something ‘ebbing away’ leaving her once again without a ‘viable’ child, she chooses to move forward and declares that she is ‘not a martyr, just someone who sees what need to be done and does it’.

2. Michelle in ‘Five-Dollar Family’, has to adjust all her dreams of Des becoming the perfect father and boyfriend when she realises, he’ll be going to jail. Thus, Michelle’s epiphany that ‘she is got everything this baby needs now’ and no longer sees any value in Des allow for self-growth and ultimately the ability to cope with single parenting.

Third paragraph

Which characters are unable to show resilience and become prisoners of their imperfect circumstances? 

1. In ‘Sleepers’, Ray becomes a sleeper in his own life in the aftermath of his break up. Unlike many of the short stories in the collection, Sleepers is one that does not end with the optimism of a new start but rather ends with Ray being trapped again in his life waiting ‘to take what was coming to him’ thus signifying the damage his loneliness has cost him; whereby his life has become a series of lethargic and meaningless events.

After planning which stories, we want to discuss in the essay, we can now begin the writing process. So essentially the most important part of writing your essay is planning it and making sure you understand properly what you need to answer in your essay.

Later in the year when you are doing EAL/English practice papers, it is quite unrealistic for you to create such a detailed plan considering the time restrictions. So, I will run you through how I planned my essay in an actual exam situation.

Fast plan:

So just like we did with the detailed plan, we highlight the important parts of the question that will need to be discussed in the essay.

Then you need to think of the stories that represent physical pain yet the characters rise above their tribulations:

1. Flexion

2. Like a House on Fire

Then you need to think of the stories that represent emotional pain:

1. Waiting

2. Five-Dollar Family

Then you need to think of the rebuttal story whereby the characters suffer but do not exhibit resilience:

1. Sleepers

So essentially in the short plan you just outline the stories that you would like to mention and split them up according to which aspect of the prompt they will be answering rather than actually writing dot points on each one. So your plan becomes less detailed but rather just an outline so you stay on track and do not ramble.

Essay Topic and Body Paragraphs BREAKDOWN


[Video Transcript]

Hey guys, welcome back to Lisa's Study Guides. So this week I have another essay topic breakdown for you. So eventually I'm going to get through all of the VCAA texts that are on the study design, but we're slowly going to get there and are just want to say yet again, even though this one is like a house on fire, I am really glad if you've clicked on this video and you're not necessarily studying it because as always with all my videos, I try to give you an overall message for you to take away that can be applied to any single text. So that is the same for this particular text today. And so even though the takeaway message for this video is quite specific to short stories, it's still an important consideration for any text that you're studying. Ideally, you want to use a diverse range of evidence for any text, but in particular, for short stories, you don't just want to rely on a small handful, but to try and make links between the different short stories.

So let's see what that means on the other side of this quick overview of the text. Like a House on Fire is a collection of short stories by the author, Cate Kennedy, and unlike a lot of other texts on the study design, this book portrays a lot of very domestic situations, which seems fairly boring compared to some of the other texts that other students might be doing. However, I'm really excited about this text because the short stories are great. Not because they have groundbreaking premises, which they don't, but because of how effortlessly and deeply emotive they are. So the domestic scenarios actually help us relate to the characters in the stories and empathize with the complexity of their experiences. The essay topic we'll be looking at today is in Like a House on Fire, Kennedy finds strength in ordinary people. Discuss.

Here, the term which you really have to think about is strength. We already know that she depicts the story of ordinary people, of people like you or me, or even just people we may know, but does she find strength in them? It could be physical strength, but more often than not, it might be other types of strength. For instance, the mental strength it takes to cope with intense pressure or the emotional strength it takes to make a difficult choice or action. It's important to think about how they might actually apply throughout the book. In this sense, our essay will have essentially two halves.

The first two body paragraphs we'll look at scenarios of intense pressure, be it through the loss of control in one's life or a domestic situation which has become emotionally tense. The last two body paragraphs will then consider the types of strength that Kennedy evinces in these stories. And we'll contend that she does find strength in the characters who face a difficult decision, but that she also finds a lot more strength in the characters who managed to cope with their situation and grapple with the tensions in their lives.

Paragraph one

In many of her stories, Kennedy portrays characters who experience powerlessness. This loss of power can come a number of ways. For instance, both Flexion and Like a House on Fire tell the story of men who have injured their previously reliable bodies and have thus been rendered immobile. But they also tell the story of their respective wives who have lost some control over their lives now that they have to care for their husbands. On the other hand, there are the kids in Whirlpool whose mother insists that they dress a certain way for a Christmas photo. Her hand on your shoulders, exerting pressure that pushes you down. Kennedy's use of second person really makes you feel this pressure that keeps you from going out to the pool you so desperately desire to be in. Evidently powerlessness is an experience that comes in many shapes and forms in several stories.

Paragraph two

In addition to this, Kennedy explores other emotional tensions across the collection, subverting the idea that the home is necessarily a safe sanctuary. This is where she really goes beyond just the idea of powerlessness, but actually jumps into scenarios that are much more emotionally complex. In Ashes for instance, we see the homosexual protagonist struggle with feeling useless and tongue tied, embarrassed by the floundering pause between his mother and himself. There is a significant emotional hurdle there, which is particularly poignant given that mothers are usually considered a source of safety and comfort for their children. Kennedy's story of domesticity actually subvert or question what we might think of the domestic space shared by family members. If you have the Scribe edition of the book, the artwork on the cover would depict a vase of wilting flowers, an empty picture frame, and a spilt cup of coffee.

These are all visual symbols of an imperfect domestic life. A similar rift exists between husband and wife in both Five Dollar Family and Waiting, the women find themselves unable to emotionally depend on their partners. While Michelle in Five Dollar Family despises her husbands startled, faintly incredulous expression, an inability to care for their child, the protagonist in Waiting struggles to talk about her miscarriages with her husband who is already worn down as it is. Kennedy takes these household roles of mother, son, husband, wife, and really dives into the complex shades of emotion that lies within these relationships. We realize through her stories that a mother can't always provide comfort to a child and that a husband isn't always the dependable partner that he's supposed to be.

Paragraph three

However, Kennedy does find strength in some characters who do take a bold or courageous leap in some way. These are really important moments in which she is able to show us the strength that it takes to make these decisions. And she triumphs however small or insignificant that can be achieved.

A moment that really stands out to me is the ending of Laminex and Mirrors, where the protagonist rebelliously smuggles a hospital patient out for a smoke only to have to take him back into his ward through the main entrance and therefore get them both caught. She recounts this experience as the one I remember most clearly from the year I turned 18. The two of us content, just for this perfect moment. And their success resonates with the audience, even though the protagonist would have lost her job and therefore the income she needed for her trip to London, Kennedy demonstrates her strength in choosing compassion for an elderly patient. Even the sister in Whirlpool, who wasn't exactly kind to the protagonist in the beginning, forms an unlikely alliance with her against their mother, sharing a reckless moment and cutting their photo shoot short. Bold leaps such as these are ones that take strength and therefore deserve admiration.

Paragraph four

However, more often than not, Kennedy's stories are more about the strength needed to simply cope with life, one day at a time. She explores the minutiae of her characters lives in a way that conveys the day to day struggles, but also hints at the underlying fortitude needed to deal with these things on a daily basis. In Tender, the wife feels as if everything at home is on the verge of coming apart since her husband is only able to cook tuna and pasta casserole for their kids. However, when she must get a possibly malignant tumour removed, her concern of whether there'll be tuna and pasta in the pantry just in case, demonstrates her selfless nature. Kennedy thus creates a character who is strong for others, even when her own life at home is disorderly and her health may be in jeopardy. The strength of gritting one's teeth and getting on with things in spite of emotional tension is a central idea across this collection, and many other examples are there for you to consider as well.

And so we come to the end of our essay. Hopefully going through this gives you an idea of how to cover more bases with your evidence. Remember that you don't have to recount lots and lots of events, but it's more important to engage with what the events are actually telling us about people. This is particularly important for prompts like this one, where it heavily focuses on the people involved. That is it for me this week, please give this video a thumbs up. If you wanted to say thanks to Mark, who has been helping me write these scripts up for a lot of the text response essay, topic breakdowns. If you enjoyed this, then you might also be interested in the live stream coming up next week, which will be on Friday the 25th of May at 5:00 PM. I'll be covering the topic of analysing argument for the second time, just because there's so much to get through. I'll also be announcing some special things during that particular live stream. So make sure you're there so you're the first to hear it. I will see you guys next week. Bye.

Resources

VCE Text Response Study Guide

Close analysis of 'Cake' from Like a House on Fire

'Cake from Like a House' YouTube Video

The Ultimate guide to VCE Text Response

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion

Like a House on Fire

Like a House on Fire Essay Planning


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